I discovered a couple of cool videos on the Guardian UK about Guerilla Gardeners (here, and here). Then I found another on YouTube that really introduces the concept with some humor. I think this guy deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.
Archive for April, 2008
I’ve been seeing a number of comments on other blogs from readers who are concerned about Peak Oil, climate change and hunger and want to start a garden, but don’t know where to begin. As someone who once knew nothing about gardening, but now have some experience, I wanted to share some tips. It is said of game development that a good game is easy to learn and difficult to master. Gardening is the same. What you want is to start with something fast and easy- instant gratification, or as close as we can come in the gardening world. Quick wins build confidence and enthusiasm.
Start with Herbs
Thyme, oregano, chives and sage are fairly easy perennials (meaning they survive the winter underground and produce new growth in the spring from the existing plant). They need sun and that’s about it. They don’t need much water or particularly good soil. Go down to the local nursery and buy some starts, transplant them into your garden close to the kitchen or back door, or containers on a sunny porch or patio, or a pot in the kitchen. Now you have a good supply of basic cooking herbs.
While nothing is fool proof these herbs are as close as I’ve ever come to fast, simple and enjoyable. Once you have this base of herbs you can expand into annuals (that need to be grown from seed each season) like parsley and cilantro. Both of these do pretty well at reseeding themselves, so again, go down to the nursery and get starts and let a few plants go to seed and you should have a perpetual supply.
Starting from Seed
Nothing is quite as exciting for me as seeing a new sprout from a seed I planted last week. In general, the bigger the seed, the easier it is to sprout. The best things for first timers to start from seed are sunflowers, beans and peas. These are all fast sprouters and growers.
I use egg cartons and special seed starting mix, but you can also use potting soil in styrofoam cups, milk cartons with the top cut off, yoghurt cartons or other recycleable containers. In any case you need to poke or cut a hole in the bottom, so water can drain out. This means you’ll also need a plastic tray or bin. The nice thing about styrofoam egg containers is that you can separate the top lid, turn it over and you have a perfectly fitted tray to catch the water.
Sprouting requires warmth and water, so make sure your starting pots are full of moist starter mix. The bane of seed starters is something called “damping off” where suddenly, after two weeks, the leaves fall off and you’re left with a pathetic, dying stalk of a seedling. This is caused by fungi or microorganisms in garden soil, which is why it is best to start in a clean container with sterile potting mix. That said, I’ve rarely had this problem with beans, peas and sunflowers. And for some reason, damping off almost never happens when you plant directly into the garden bed, which you can also do with the seeds I’ve recommended here.
There is no greater, more immediate sensation than the taste of the first home-grown tomato, compared to the mealy, hard, tasteless red things you get in the supermarket. Many, many home gardeners start with tomatoes- they’re the obvious choice, and not difficult to grow. They do have a few quirks though, and maybe the hardest thing is figuring out which variety to grow. I suspect most newbies go for beefsteaks or early girl varieties, which are not so tasty, or picky hybrid cherry tomatoes. My personal, starting-out favorite is the humble roma.
Tomatoes need sun and warmth. Don’t plant til well after the last frost. Here in Western New York (Zone 6) don’t plant tomatoes before Memorial Day. I put mine in last July and had a fine crop in September. Tomatoes need to be staked up or they fall over and rot. I typically use metal wire basket-like contraptions that you simply push into the ground around the tomato when it is small. Any respectable nursery or big hardware store will have these, but you can often get them cheap at garage sales. Finally, when the fruit start to appear and get ripe, cut back as much of the non-flowering leaf stalks as possible. This feels weird to a new gardener, but it channels the plant’s energy into the fruit rather than new growth, and lets in more sun in for ripening.
The lesson I keep receiving from my gardening practice is that I know only a little. One Permaculture precept is that human knowledge is only ever a small portion of the total information stored and flowing in a natural system. It has been very helpful to me to approach the garden as a child or a scientist, asking “I wonder what’s going on with that?” when I see something I don’t expect. I was surprised one day last year when I lifted a stone from the stone pile and a fat toad jumped up at me. Turns out toads like the warm stone caves to hide out in at night, and it also turns out that toads are great for the garden. So I put some little stone piles in various parts of the garden. Humility means litterally “a state of being close to the earth (humus)” and even after many years of this I don’t pretend to know everything.
Find out what works and stick with it. What doesn’t work, try something different.
One of the threads here at Greenerminds is to record the transformation of my garden this year. Many gardeners keep a garden journal, and this is mine. I want to be able to come back next year and see where I was in development at various points in time.
With that said, I want to indicate what I believe the final frost date for 2008 here in the Rochester, NY area was Wednesday, April 16. Actually I’m a bit south, but not yet in the higher elevations that start about 10 miles south. Officially we’re all in Zone 6 but there are many microclimates and miniclimates. I got some frost on parts of my site yesterday, and it was very light, with a low temperature overnight of around 32° F.
Which meant also that I was able to put out the first seedlings last night, which I’ve been hardening off (taking out during the day, back in at night) for the last two weeks. I put these seedlings in two raised beds I built last summer using a sheet mulch, and the dirt is nice! There were tons of earthworms and other soil activity. Anyway, I put out parsley, cilantro, mesclun, arrugula, tai sai, broccoli raab, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, snap and sugar peas.
I also rented a rototiller for half a day Saturday. I’m only rototilling the swale / paths and where the pond will go, just to make it easier to dig. I’ll do another post in a few days on how the swales and paths go together. I need to get some red or white clover for the paths, and may need to scrounge some mulch for the swales. Fortunately, tons of free organic material is available on the local sides-of-the-road as people do their spring yard “cleaning.”
George Monbiot finallly makes the point today in the Guardian, that I have been wanting to make about the emerging global food crisis. While some stories on the subject in recent days have mentioned the epic drought in Australia, likely due to global warming, most blame the situation on biofuel use of corn. The fact is that most corn, and indeed most food grain is fed to livestock. Livestock can eat a lot of things beside grain, but grain feed allows for factory production, where massive numbers of animals can be housed on small areas rather than free ranging on pasture. Corn-fed beef and pork are also more “marketable” than pasture-fed.
Monbiot says this:
But there is a bigger reason for global hunger, which is attracting less attention only because it has been there for longer. While 100m tonnes of food will be diverted this year to feed cars, 760m tonnes will be snatched from the mouths of humans to feed animals - which could cover the global food deficit 14 times. If you care about hunger, eat less meat.
He proposes eating farmed tilapia which is very protein-productive and efficient. I’m looking into raising a few in my new mini-pond, when it gets dug later this year. This is the first I’ve heard anyone mention tilapia outside Permaculture circles, although a commenter mentions problems with Chinese and Taiwanese farmed tilapia.
In energy descent, rather than centralized grocery shopping, fed by centralized distribution centers and trucking, fed by monoculture stockyards, fed by monoculture grain production, we need a system where most of the food is much closer to the point of consumption.
In other words, grow a garden. Farm some tilapia. Raise some chickens for eggs and perhaps meat, and maybe a goat for milk. Grain production may still be more efficient on medium to large scales, from an energy standpoint, but most industrial vegetables and fruits are clearly energy losers, even before they get shipped from Chile or California.
One point raised in the comments to Monbiot’s article indicates that the financial crisis does in fact play into the food crisis. Speculative excess capital has flowed into commodities of all kinds over the last two years and this is having a huge cumulative effect on grain prices, including energy and fertilizer input costs and a new midwestern land price bubble. Without being able to systematically untangle the skein of interrelated forcings, we can’t say for certain how much any of these factors —ethanol, oil, climate change, meat habits and speculation —directly contribute to hunger; we only know that they do.
The New York Times has a story today that gave me hope and a warm fuzzy feeling. Apparently, several people are not concerned about a recession at all. Thanks to the American sucker-taxpayer, there’s basically no consequence for the equity traders, hedge fund managers and Bear-Stearns’ chairman, despite what Joseph Stiglitz, Henry Kaufman, and the IMF conclude is a $1 Trillion bust. Party on!
I’m killing my lawn and turning it into a food garden.
Let the sheet mulching begin! I went for a walk around town the other day, poking around the old abandoned railway lines (often a good place to find old tree and shrub stock), and walked past a feed and grain store I hadn’t paid much attention to. I called them up and asked if they sold strawbales, and they did. I ordered 20 at $4.50 each.
Unfortunately they don’t deliver and I don’t have a pickup any more. So I decided to rent a U-Haul, and found that the repair shop around the corner from me rents them- I could walk there if necessary. So I lined up a truck for this weekend.
Meanwhile I went on craigslist and discovered all manner of cool free stuff including rotted horse manure and creek rocks (don’t tell these folks, but people pay good money for this stuff). Haven’t heard back from the rock people yet, but I have the manure and straw pickups scheduled for this Saturday. Naturally, the forecast is for rain.
So the way sheet mulching works is this:
- first I put down a layer of manure, an inch or two thick, directly on the lawn.
- If I need soil amendments, these go down now too, and I probably should lime and rock phosphate a bit, especially up the end with the spruce tree.
- Next we need a weed barrier. My preferred material is corrugated cardboard from the gazillion shipping boxes left over from Christmas and various birthdays, coffee shipments, etc. Thick newspaper, cotton clothes or even carpet will work too. This is to prevent the lawn / weed from coming up through the manure fertilizer.
- Next layer is a bit of topsoil, maybe an inch. This isn’t really needed, but I put it in anyway.
- Then comes 6″ to 10″ of straw or other mulch. Last year I used double-ground bark mulch, but it was a bit too woody, so I changed to straw this year.
The great news about sheet mulch:
- no digging
- goes really fast
- you can plant into it right away by making little soil pockets into the mulch
- no digging
Once I get this going, I’ll include some pictures and maybe even a video on the process.